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Friday, October 30, 1998 Published at 15:42 GMT


New radios beam into Iran and Iraq

Constructive? or just another brand of propaganda?

By Peter Feuilherade of BBC Monitoring's Foreign Media Unit

After months of political and diplomatic wrangling, two new US-funded radio services to Iran and Iraq have begun transmitting. They are also available via the Internet.

The shortwave broadcasts, in Persian and Arabic respectively, are produced by Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the US Government-funded surrogate broadcaster based in the Czech Republic capital, Prague.

In 1997 members of the US Congress floated the idea of starting a so-called "Radio Free Iran" service which would function as a surrogate broadcaster, separate from the Voice of America (VOA) and modelled on the Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia services that the US Government already funds.

RFE/RL, a private international radio service funded by the US Congress, has broadcast to central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union since the 1950s.

Later, in the aftermath of the confrontation in early 1998 between Iraq and the United Nations, political pressure mounted in the US, initially from members of conservative think-tanks and later by Republican politicians, for the setting up of a similar "Radio Free Iraq" service.

Plan to enrich Iranian debate

As US-Iranian diplomatic overtures intensified following the election of President Khatami in Iran in May 1997, the US State Department tried unsuccessfully to scupper plans for new Persian-language broadcasts.

In April this year, the State Department said that the proposed increase in US-financed broadcasts to Iran was designed to "enrich" domestic political debate inside Iran, and not to undermine the Iranian government .

The State Department also opposed the new service being called "Radio Free Iran". It will be known instead as the Persian-language service of RFE/RL.

The new service in Arabic, however, is officially called Radio Free Iraq.

Once the proposed US radio broadcasts to Iran and Iraq acquired an unstoppable momentum, the next step for Washington was to find a host country and venue.

Both London and Paris were mentioned at one stage. But eventually it was decided that both the new services would be produced by RFE/RL in Prague.

Security concerns

The Czech Republic says it has no control over the content of RFE/RL broadcasts, and eventually gave its tentative support for the US broadcasts, despite security concerns.

RFE/RL originally wanted to run the services to Iran and Iraq from a villa in a Prague suburb, but the Czech government, fearing terrorist attacks, prevailed upon it to find a venue with fewer security risks.

For the time being, the services will be run from RFE/RL's headquarters in Wenceslas Square in central Prague.

Ever since the new US broadcasts were mooted, Baghdad and Tehran have criticised them as interference in their internal affairs.

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said the Persian-language service was funded from a special $20m budget allocated by the US to be used for destabilising the Islamic Republic.

And the Iraqi newspaper, Al-Jumhuriyah, this week commented that "Washington is showing complete disregard for the principles of international diplomacy and exchange".

Both governments have also warned the Czech Republic that Prague's decision to host the services could harm diplomatic relations and have negative repercussions for trade with Czech companies.

A new lease of life?

US surrogate broadcasters such as RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia are designed to sound like domestic radio stations in the target countries, with plenty of local news.

Conservative US politicians and think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, who support the idea of more broadcasts to Iran and Iraq, argue that their purpose should be to broadcast news with an opposition slant, and not just to provide news that Iranian and Iraqi listeners can already hear from other sources.

The start of these new surrogate broadcasts to Iran and Iraq could give a new lease of life to RFE/RL, which is destined to lose its US Government funding in 1999.

But some US analysts question whether the broadcasts will have much impact on their intended targets.

"The real question is content," said Richard Haass, a former National Security Council official.

The broadcasts were potentially constructive, but listeners in Iran and Iraq would tend to ignore politicized news as just another brand of propaganda, he predicted.

BBC Monitoring (http://www.monitor.bbc.co.uk), based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.



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